As I write this, the CART U.S. 500 at Michigan is about to begin (I've actually gone to the troube to turn away from the NASCAR race to see). It looks like a nice day in Michigan for a race. The brightly colored, immaculately assembled, and professionally driven cars are about to go out and (maybe) give the fans a great show. Hopefully, what happened there last year won't happen today. I doubt that it will, but you never know.
It was here, at this track one year ago, that a wheel from a crashed car bounced into the stands and killed three spectators, an almost identical situation to what occurred at the IRL event at Charlotte this year. Like the Charlotte accident, it was a total fluke; a wheel got booted at just the right angle such that it managed to clear a high fence and bounce into an area of the stands that was believed to be safe. Like at Charlotte, this occurred despite numerous precations that were taken by the venue to prevent this very thing from happening. And like the IRL, CART has since implemented rules requiring wheels to be tethered, and the systems being required now by the two sanctioning bodies are similar.
Who's got apples, and who's got oranges?
But there are some significant differences between the Michigan accident last year and the Charlotte accident last spring. And it now appears that the most significant difference is the sanctioning bodies involved. Three months after it happened, the mainstream sports media are still discussing the Charlotte accident; at the Atlanta IRL event last weekend, it was impossible to turn on a TV news broadcast or cable sports program without seeing a scene of a well-dressed, fresh-faced, and painfully earnest reporter interviewing a race fan and, if the person was planning to atttend the race, asking "Aren't you concerned about what happened at Charlotte? Don't you think you might be in danger?". (Or the even more painful alternative scenario, a non-attendee being asked the leading question, "So you aren't going to go because you have to think about your wife and children?".) On the other hand, from the press coverage this weekend, you would never have guessed that the Charlotte accident's precursor occurred at Michigan one year ago this weekend.
Can you name them?
There is scarcely an open-wheel fan, on either side of the CART/IRL "split", who can't name at least one of Randy Pyatte, Jeff Patton, or Dexter Mobley, the three fans who died at Charlotte, or Haley McGee, the courageous little 9-year-old girl who survived serious injuries and is now recovering. What were the names of the three fans who died at Michigan? Can you think of any? I can't, and I'll bet you can't either. Why is that? Let us count the ways. I think I only heard their names once. There are no media Web sites giving continuous updates on the fates of the injured or offering ongoing condolences to the families of the dead, at least not to my knoweldge. But more importantly: The accident was the story at Charlotte. When it happened, the race was cancelled; the racers forfeited their purses and an offer was made to refund all tickets. Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler and the IRL did the honorable thing. And three months later, it's still all that much of the racing media talks about. In contrast, at Michigan the race went on; a winner was crowned and most of the participants and fans had no idea what had happened until they got home and watched the news reports. The CART Champ Car series went on as if nothing had happened, and a few weeks later the media had forgotten all about it. Which leads to a sad but unescable conclusion, and it's difficult to say but someone's got to say it:
In terms of media management, CART's approach worked. The IRL's approach failed.
Note that I am not advocating that the IRL should have done anything different; rather, I have a higher opinion for having handled it the way they did, and continue to do (the trust fund for the victim's families, the ongoing efforts to work with affected fans through the IRL Ministry, etc.) And I'm not necessarily criticizing CART for the way they handled Michigan; someone else will have to argue that point because frankly I'm not sure what to think about it. But there's no arguing these two points:
Some customers aren't worth the trouble.
That's the part they teach in business school that the public never hears. If you run a business, and you have someone that consistently ruins every piece of merchandise they purchase and then storms in demanding full refunds for everything every time, you may as well throw that person out of your store despite how many "the customer is always right" signs there may be posted in the place, because you will never be able to make any money doing business with that person. If you are doing government business and, in order to win a contract, you have to bid so low that the fee cannot possibly cover your costs, then there is no point in bidding on that contract. So it is with the racing media. They have made up their minds; they aren't going to change their minds mo matter what, and trying to make them happy is a lost cause. So if you the gentle reader should ever be named the chief executive officer of the Indy Racing League, and heaven forbid there is an accident involving spectator fatalities, look back to the example of Charlotte in 1997 and do exactly what they did. Just don't waste any of your time trying to explain it to the press.