Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- Thank You, Dan Wheldon

For giving me one of my greatest Indy 500 memories and for showing my 15-year-old son why I think this place is so special. I'll talk about his dominant (yes, dominant, I'll explain later) run this year and his role as a Greatest 33 party crasher next week, but for now I just want to relive a wonderful, wonderful moment.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Media and Its Role in All of This

Along with this blog, I am a sportswriter. In my 12-year career I have been blessed to have covered sports from the high school to professional levels, along the way dealing with some great people (and not so great ones) and having some amzing experiences that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I didn't go to journalism school, and didn't begin my writing career until I was 31 years old, so I have learned on the fly and have been lucky to have some great people to work with and look up to as mentors and examples of how to do it the right way.

Because I pretty much fell into the job (I answered phones and typed up scores until one day they sent me out to write), I view my writing career as playing with house money, that anything I get to experience is just icing on the cake. For all of the great things I've done, I feel like I only have one thing left to make my resume complete, and that is to someday cover the Indy 500. Until then, I live out that dream through this blog.

I take my job as a writer seriously, and always try as hard as I can to present a story as objectively as possible, without any slant or bias. I owe that to the people to read it, and I owe it to myself and my own personal integrity.

Over the last three days, I have been reading as much as I can about Dan Wheldon's tragic death in Las Vegas on Sunday. I've read some great pieces, in fact, many of the most thoughtful, heartfelt pieces have been written by my fellow IndyCar bloggers, who have blown me away with their talents.

I also think that the contributions of the drivers themselves, whether articles they have written personally or interviews they have done in print or on TV, have been great and shows the class, professionalism and quality of people we have in our sport. As a fan, I'm very proud of that.

I have to say I am also impressed with many in the NASCAR community who have used this as an opportunity to show their support and express the respect that they have for the drivers in IndyCar. I hope a certain faction of both fan bases takes that to heart.

Unfortunately, I've also come across several that I can only call hit-pieces. Many people have used Dan's death as an opportunity to spread their unfavorable agendas about open wheel racing and IndyCar in general. Many people are totally ignorant to the sport but think because they have a forum to do so they can spew out anything they want anyway.

It's like the line in the movie Wedding Singer, "well I have the microphone, and you don't, so you will listen to every damn word I have to say!".

I'm not talking about people who are asking legitimate, responsible questions...we all should be doing the same to figure out what happened and how we can avoid it happening again in the future. What I'm talking about are the media outlets that are questioning the safety of the series or implying that decisions made by Randy Bernard and IndyCar were made with greed and TV ratings in mind, rather than the well-being of the drivers. Many others are using it as an attempt to kick the series when it is down.

What raised my ire today is a piece in the International Business Times, which can be read here. The reporting, fact-checking, quotes and statistics used in this story might make this the worst piece I have seen about the tragedy. It is both irresponsible and unfair. If this writer wanted to blog this, fine, but to run it in what I believe is supposed to be a legitimate news source and to run it as a news story -- and not an opinion -- smacks of either a) an uneducated writer, b) a serious agenda or c) a huge combination of both.

Another item that has really gotten mine (and everyone else's) attention is the comment from Jimmie Johnson that IndyCar should stop racing on ovals. As soon as those words came out of his mouth, I knew they would take on a life of their own. I understood what he was saying, like many of us, he was invested in the situation. He knew Dan Wheldon and has plenty of friends in the open wheel community. In many places I have said that Dan "gets it" and Jimmie Johnson does too. He understands the history and tradition of the sport and the Indy 500, and wasn't speaking maliciously. He was emotional, it was personal, and all he was saying was he wanted something to be done so he didn't lose any more of his friends. I don't want that to happen either.

His saying what he did is no different than the drivers involved in the accident or ones that drove in the race saying they are thinking about quitting the sport, or Sam Schmidt's comment that he may end his career as an owner. Their emotions are riding high right now, and time and space will make them realize that this is their calling, their passion and what they do. No matter what they say now, you can bet all of them will be taking the green flag at St. Pete next spring because they are racers.

However, Johnson's credibility as a 5-time NASCAR champion gave people the opening to use that to push their opinions and agenda. Forget that Johnson has never driven an open wheel car, they don't care. They can attach his name to their story, and that works for them.

In a 24-hour, 1000-channel, 1,000,000 website media cycle, you have to do something to get to the top of the heap. I get that. But at the same time, throwing responsibility out the window is something that has really pissed me off the last few days. Too many people who know little about racing and the series in general have weighed in on their opinions.

As a friend once told me: you are entitled to your opinion, but you are also entitled to be wrong. The problem is that people who know little about the sport or just have a fringe interest can't separate the fact from the fiction. That's dangerous, especially if you believe like I do that the future of this series is at stake.

In today's world, everyone is an expert -- did I see someone post on Twitter they talked about the accident on 'The View'? -- and unfortunately if a media personality has a shred of credibility with a person, they will believe everything they say. Some people have built careers and fortunes over this premise.

A lot of that is going on right now. Too much bad information is being thrown around, and it's very damaging. I'm not saying that this is a specific case, it happens way too often any time a major event occurs. This time it just happens to be very near and dear to my heart.

Words are being twisted and quotes are being taken out of context just to prove a point or push an agenda. Somewhere there is a line between real reporting and opinion and speculation, but I no longer know where that is. And when I hear people say they get their news from the "Daily Show" I don't think they do either.

I will admit that this blog is written with a pro-open wheel, pro-IndyCar stance. I do this strictly for fun and the chance to do something different, as well as a chance to share my love of the sport with other people, who although I haven't met any of them I call them friends. If anyone ever tried to use this blog as a credible source, I would quickly set the record straight. It's not and isn't supposed to be.

That is the beauty of social media, the ability to connect with people all over the world who share the same interests you do, but its dark side is also being represented here. It's not fair to the sport, not fair to the people involved and certainly not fair the the memory of Dan Wheldon.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Can't Believe This Has Happened -- Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011

Like everyone else in the IndyCar world, I am numb right now. When the green flag dropped today I was full of excitement. With all of the other activities leading up to the race, everything was so...perfect. It seemed like for once everything was going to go right for the series and Randy Bernard's magic touch was going to send us into 2012 on a high note and continue IndyCar's climb back to respectability.

And then the bottom fell out. The carnage began and when it was over one of the greatest drivers in Indy 500 history and one of the most popular and marketable names in the sport was gone.

I think I was not the only one who became a Dan Wheldon fan over the past year or so. Years ago, I bought what the media fed me, that he was a party guy, and at times a cocky punk. I was wrong, incredibly wrong. From all accounts he was a kind and thoughful person, a great friend and family man.

Seeing the devistation on the faces of the people in the series' inner circle today, you knew that he was respected and loved. And as I mentioned in a post a few months ago, I think I know why. The guy got it, big time. He understood the history of the Indy 500, and understood the responsibility he had as one of its fortunate champions. He knew how important it was to promote the series at every turn, and that the fans are the series' lifeblood. He gave off the impression of a man who knew how lucky he was to be doing the job he did, and how important it was to pay that forward.

Despite not having a ride he made himself visible to the fans, and for a guy who spent much of this year unemployed, looked like he was having the time of his life. He was a natural in a race car and as we found out, a natural in front of the camera as well. I learned a lot about the series and the mindset of a driver thanks to his eloquent commentary as an announcer for Versus.

That all ended in a 15-car pileup today, and I just don't know what to do. In one sense, it isn't fair. People like Dan Wheldon aren't supposed to die -- they are superheroes -- they can do anything! Unfortunately, the older we get, the more we know that isn't true. They are human just like the rest of us, it's just they have an incredible skill that we don't, and it is that skill why we look up to them.

Personally, Dan provided me with one of my greatest memories as a racing fan. This year was finally the year I was able to take one of my two sons to the Indy 500 for the first time. I have great memories of going to the Speedway with my dad, and one of my dreams in life was to be able to pass my love for the track and the race to my two boys, just like my dad passed his along to my younger brother than me.

His win no doubt but a huge exclamation point on the Centennial, and while I felt for (and still feel for) J.R. Hildebrand, the drama that was the race's final quarter-lap was the perfect way to introduce someone new to the sport.

After the race Matt and I went to the museum to see the winning cars display, and on our way back to the Coke Lot we walked through the Pagoda area. Up on the balcony/walkway was Dan Wheldon finally finishing up his interviews and finally having the opportunity to celebrate his amazing day with his family and friends. We all started cheering, and he turned to us and smiled and raised his hands into the air. He had the look of a man that was just loving life. At that one moment in his life he seemed to have everything he could ever want.

Though his life ended too soon, we should all strive in our own lives to feel how he did that day. Wow, what an incredible feeling that may be!

As race fans, we understand the risk that they take when they get into a car, and those of us who have been around this sport long enough know that some of them are going to strap themselves into a car, fire the engine, leave the pits and not return. But why Dan Wheldon? And why now?

It shows us two things: 1) life is completely unpredictable and 2) that racing will never, ever truly be safe. It sucks that things like this have to happen to jolt our minds into that reality.

Now isn't the time to wonder what this does to the future of the sport, although we will all probably address that in the future. Now is the time to remember Dan Wheldon and keep his family, friends and loved ones in our thoughts and prayers. The harshest part of all of this is that he leaves behind a wife and two children, brothers and sisters and other people who cared about him.

On July 31, I wrote a post about Dan Wheldon and said how lucky we were to have him as a part of IndyCar. Those words still ring true today. We were so lucky to have Dan Wheldon in our sport, and hopefully the memory of his enthusiasm of the sport and the love he had for life will keep us going into what is sure to be a much longer off-season than it was already going to be.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

At This Point, Anything is a Good Idea

It was more than disheartening to read about the putrid ratings the IndyCar series pulled for the races in Japan and Kentucky. While you can try to paint it any way you want...Motegi was late at night, Kentucky ran up against NASCAR and the NFL. I say, blah, blah, blah, when the country's top level of open wheel races draws a COMBINED 300,000 viewers for the two races, something has to be done.

Of course, the Versus contract does the series no good. Millions of people don't have it, and the millions more that do have no idea. While the production is top-notch and the announcing is probably the best of any racing series, it doesn't matter when the race is the proverbial tree in the deserted forest.

Nope, it doesn't make a noise. Heck, I watched ESPN off and on all Sunday afternoon, not once on its crawler on the bottom did it even list who won the race. While I know ESPN doesn't allow such things because it might run the risk of pulling a viewer away of its Cup coverage, it's still tough to watch.

So where do we go next? Until the series can move to a better broadcast package, they have to get a little more creative as to how to attract viewership.

And I have an idea. Follow the mid-majors. Just like in college sports where the smaller schools do almost anything to get on TV, the series should do the same.

In football parlance, NASCAR is the BCS and IndyCar represents the mid-majors. But just because that's the case doesn't mean the series can't pull a Boise State and crash the party every once in a while.

For several years I was part of a newspaper's coverage team of Northern Illinois University football. Meaning I covered games that were played on almost every day of the week.

Northern played (and still plays) games whenever, wherever, for the opportunity to get on television, to improve the exposure of the program and the university. And by all accounts it has worked as the Huskies have been able to bring in better players and are a perennial bowl contender.

Maybe it is time for the series to follow the same blueprint. After all, why do races have to be on a Saturday or Sunday? I understand that racing is different from other sports in that people travel to the races and the weekend works best, my thought is this...if you pick the right place and the right night, you can pretty much draw 15,000-20,000 people any night of the week.

What is stopping IndyCar from holding a race on, say, a Thursday night that doesn't conflict with any other sporting event? Sure, the attendance would probably stink but that wouldn't be the point, it would be the opportunity to race in front of the largest TV audience possible on a network that would be willing to be a good partner.

Hypothetically, pick a track in a warm-weather state and run it at night in the early spring. Like Homestead for example. Get it on a channel that has national exposure and go. Qualify and race all in one day. The whole point is to get people to tune into the race because it's racing and it is not on TV against anything else. Face, it, NASCAR and the NFL will kick IndyCar's ass every day and twice on Sunday...which it did this past weekend! But maybe if the race was on at a time and place that might get people to tune

I think this would work, and hopefully the Vegas race will prove that if the series is on a major network that people will watch. Put an oval race in front of the largest audience possible and I guarantee a lot of people would like what they see and tune in again.