If I had a dollar for every time someone has ranted against ESPN or one of their employees in the glorious comments section here at My Name Is IRL I’d probably have enough to pay for my annual trip to Indy. The World Wide Leader has steadfastly stood by and paid the series to televise their races, but at the same time they have infuriatingly pre-empted races, abruptly ended broadcasts, and even subjected us to the horror that is Todd Harris.
You don’t need me to tell you this because the league’s bipolar relationship with the network swings wildly from the Danica Patrick love-ins on the race broadcasts to the occasionally abusive coverage at ESPN.com. As a consequence there has been a growing movement from fans asking that the IRL consider a different broadcast partner for next year, a proposal that despite the flawed relationship I’m not going to echo. I mean, I’ve seen what happened to the National Hockey League, and I don’t want to go looking for races on Versus.
Which brings us to, well, let’s first set the WABAC machine to 1999, after an errant tire from a crash at IRL race in Charlotte left three fans dead.
When the most influential sporting publication in America, the weekly Sports Illustrated ran a story and graphic photographs of a fatal accident of an IRL race on May 1 in Charlotte, the president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway banned the writer, Ed Hinton, from covering the 500.Ahem. Long story short, Hinton, who was Senior Writer at SI, eventually got his credential back after other writers threatened to not cover the race, and everyone went back about their business. Since then Hinton has worked all over the place, including SPEED where his bio brazenly states “He also wrote that IRL and CART should stop racing on high-speed oval tracks” as well as asks the open-ended question “Does Hinton deserve some credit for wheel tethers and taller and more sturdy catch fencing?”
His story, headlined "Fatal Attractions", was accompanied by a gory, colour photo from Associated Press showing one victim with a leg protruding from under a sheet lying on blood-covered grandstand steps. In the picture was another sheet-covered body. Since this was the magazine's auto racing section, there was a linked full-page advertisement facing the story. Unfortunately, the ad, for Valvoline oil, showed a group of young men hovering over an engine under an open bonnet, with the words, "You're born. You die. In between you work on cars. We should all be so lucky."
Both Valvoline and Sports Illustrated apologised for the ad's placement. "But they never apologised to the family or their readership," said Indy Speedway spokesman Fred Nation. He added an SI apology "would be a good place to get back in the track's good graces". An SI editor, Jose Assad, responded: "By no means are we going to allow them to dictate how we cover events." Hinton, a respected journalist, of course had nothing to do with the photo or headline, but he took complete responsibility for the text.
(MORE from the findarticles archive)
Yes, even bios have become editorials. But I digress.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when ESPN.com gleefully announced the hiring of yet another racing journalist who isn’t on Tony George’s Christmas Card list. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because after years of browbeating us with their tales of woe about how Tony George has torn asunder the heart of open-wheel racing, it appears this whole unification has finally turned the hearts of these scribes away from vitriol and back towards covering racing.
So we’re all singing “Kumbaya” now, right? Wrong.
Evidently there are no worthwhile stories going on in stock car racing, because in his very first article for ESPN.com Hinton has decided the best way to cover the annual N-Word race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is by writing disparagingly of Mr George and his racing series.
What was Tony George thinking, allowing stock cars onto his family's storied racetrack? What would his grandfather, the late beloved Anton Hulman, have thought?I know purists were upset at the time, but is there still anyone out there that recoils in horror at the though of The Brickyard 400? I mean, the cars are slower, the race is shorter, the event is only a week and the crowds are smaller, so for many, many reasons it’s inherently inferior as an event to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, right? Wrong again, according to Hinton.
This was Anton Hulman George at 32, in just the second year of his reign over Indy. Upon his ascension to the throne in 1990 at age 30, he'd told Indy's inner circle, according to insiders of the time, "For 80 years this place has run on tradition. From today forward it will run as a business."
But the success of this marriage has aided and abetted the devastation of the lovely old American institution called the Indianapolis 500. Emboldened by the enormous revenues from his NASCAR race, George could afford to found the Indy Racing League and go to war with CART, to return control of Indy car racing to Indy.Stock car racing at Indy is what “shook the roots of American motor racing”? “Barren outcome”? “Devastation of the lovely old American institution”? You’ve GOT to be kidding me.
A few years ago, as CART teams began defecting to the IRL, George indicated to me that he'd poured about $250 million of the Hulman-George family fortune into subsidizing the IRL, and that without question, the huge profits of bringing NASCAR to Indy had enabled him to fight.
Then just this spring, after George had won his war and surveyed the barren outcome, IndyCar racing was reunified. No telling when, if ever, the 500's original prestige might be restored.
So the advent of NASCAR to Indy was surely the event that shook the roots of American motor racing. And now, 15 years on, "it is what it is" in NASCAR jargon: Enormous, by popular demand.
The point here isn’t so much that this piece (of whatever) is insanely inaccurate, but that it is being published by the IRL’s broadcast partner. I’m not saying that ESPN reporters shouldn’t be critical (feel free to write about the overuse of the yellow flag and the under use of the black one) but when a featured writer dedicates his first article to talking down the product you’ve got to ask “what’s up”?
Now, I’m not suggestion censorship or firing Hinton or whatever because as I’ve said before I’m not a torch-and-pitchfork kind of guy. I’m not saying they should do something counterproductive like revoke his press credential again. I’m not even suggesting you my dear and cherished fellow fan should send nasty emails to Hinton’s Inbox as firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m just saying that when a more vociferous guy like Defender of the IRL says that ESPN is trying to “kill the (IRL) brand” that the evidence here serves to support this theory.