0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: Unvarnished Truth

The great thing about heading into this spring and summer is the sense that at least some of the darkness that has enveloped us is slowly receding. It would suggest that nostalgia will reign supreme, and folks will long for the familiar and have a keen appreciation of simple pleasures.

Let’s put it in the most basic terms, we all want things to seem normal again.

Which brings me to the utterly tone-deaf fight between Major League Baseball players and owners. I’m quite certain there are legitimate issues on both sides, and I have some understanding of labor negotiations.

All of that said, I think some important stakeholders in this fight finally realized that all of this was irrelevant to the public at large. In the wake of the COVID shutdowns, political polarization, supply-chain issues, an unstable market and the crisis in Ukraine, here is the deal. No one wanted to hear each side’s petty complaints. I’m a huge baseball fan, but the minute sports talk radio would say something like “Next, let’s hear from the owners,” I quit listening. Simply put, I didn’t care.

To me this is like dealing with someone who wants to talk politics at every turn. I’m through with it. Sports is a diversion from everyday life. It is supposed to be fun. While I can only assume that a percentage of folks reading these words disagree with my sentiment, I’m fairly confident I represent the majority by a wide margin.

Which brings me to my central point. When I was a kid, my family had a phone hanging on the wall in our small kitchen. My father took a bold step one day and decided to place a little placard right above the phone. It read, “Engage brain before putting mouth into gear.”

In terms of good life advice those words are perhaps far more relevant today than they were in 1960. Now there is the phone, the computer, social media, texts and whatever comes next. Yet, every single day I see this simple principle violated in the racing community.

It goes without saying that there are many differences between baseball and short-track racing. My favorite team, the Kansas City Royals, plays in Kauffman Stadium. It’s their ballpark. No one is going to kick them out and barring a franchise move, they aren’t going to threaten to play their home games elsewhere. This is the case throughout the league.

Again, barring a team vacating a city or expansion, all teams know where they are playing every year and the schedule is largely set in stone. If there is drama in this process it is negligible and largely outside of the consciousness of the public.

Racing is dramatically different.

Every year the World of Outlaws, USAC, All Stars and myriad other sanctioning bodies vie for dates. Yes, there are times when a track reaches out and expresses a desire to be host. The exception to these rules come when groups such as the World of Outlaws may rent a track and promote their own events.

Take last season. Many were excited when the All Stars raced several times in Indiana, but this year, there were no Hoosier State events on their slate. Fans of USAC sprint car racing were dismayed when the Corn Belt Nationals at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway was discontinued.

There are many examples of these kinds of things, and addition and subtractions occur for a reason. The basic point is that where Major League Baseball tweaks a largely stable platform, much is fluid in our racing world. Sure, big events will stay right where they are on the calendar. That’s a given, and officials work around those events.

What we have is an evolving and fluid partnership between sanctioning bodies, race tracks and participants. All are important and contribute to success or failure. I thought of this the instant I was watching a live-streamed race in February and a driver got in front of a microphone and bad-mouthed a race track.

Oh, I get it. Fans often take right to social media and say how much they love “Racer X” for telling it like it is, or my favorite, not being politically correct. Still, I want people to consider this fundamental question — who benefitted from this? The answer is generally no one.

The driver vented and for the moment it felt good. People slap them on the back and tell them they are great. Other drivers may even offer support and they will be more than willing to watch that same individual climb out on that slim reed again all by themselves. Did the track benefit? No. Did the sanctioning body benefit? No. And the conversations that sometimes follow in the settling up process at the end of the night aren’t fun on these occasions.

Look, I get tired of the completely varnished post-race interview, too. I realize sponsors are important and the folks back at the shop gave you a great race car, although I probably don’t think your 15th-place run was much to write home about.

That said I’m also sick of hearing “that track sucked,” or another staple that suggests that the promoter needs to either find or lose the keys to the water truck. These types of interviews become especially annoying when conducted with people who just won the race.

By and large the most productive conversations about such matters occur in private. In all my years I have never heard a promoter say they wanted to completely miss the mark on track prep, I have never heard a sanctioning body head say they really wanted to drag a show out for hours and I have never heard a driver say that their goal was to spin multiple times during the night. There are clearly times when frank talk is needed.

For example, in 2021 USAC visited a race track and I told Levi Jones if we never returned it was too soon. I felt the track personnel were generally rude and unwelcoming. Am I going to tell you here what track that was? No.

For those who are public facing there are truly ways to say things that are direct and to the point and in a far less abrasive manner. The truth is a thimble full of media training can go a long way.

For every fan that laughs and says how much they like a driver’s candor there is another fan, sponsor, or leader who is far less impressed. Which brings me back to my comparison with Major League Baseball. In 2022, fans did not want to hear about family squabbles. They wanted a deal done and wanted baseball to return. Likewise, fans don’t spend their hard money to hear complaints about officials, race tracks, fights between sanctioning body and the like.

They come to be entertained.End Bug

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