The Sting Of Irresponsible Journalism

After a very tough week of mourning and tributes for Dan Wheldon that was capped off with two moving ceremonies – one in St. Petersburg and one in Indianapolis that we were all allowed to view live – I get a sense that the majority of the IndyCar community is willing to move forward. We may not all be ready to, but I think that many are now at least willing to turn the page and face the “normal” world.

As tough as this past week has been on all of us fans, it has been even harder on the drivers, teams and those directly involved with the IZOD IndyCar Series. That includes INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard.

Beginning last Sunday night, I heard and read many accounts where fans and even members of the media were personally laying blame for Dan Wheldon’s fatality, specifically at the feet of Randy Bernard. I heard Kevin Lee on Thursday night’s edition of Trackside directing a question to these people asking, “Do you have no heart?” The thing is, Trackside is only listened to by hardcore fans of this sport. I seriously doubt that many, if any, casual or non-fans listen to their show. Therefore, none of those people making these cruel and baseless accusations heard Kevin’s rhetorical question.

How do I know this? Because no one that follows this sport and knows the facts would ever say such a thing.

Not to name-drop, but I feel I personally know Randy Bernard. I interviewed him at Barber last spring and had some good one-on-one time after the interview was concluded. Six weeks later during qualifying weekend at Indianapolis, Susan and I bumped into him and he immediately called us both by name and asked how the site was going. We walked through the garage area with him and chatted a little bit before we parted ways. We also exchanged e-mails a couple of times throughout the summer.

I don’t tell this to brag, nor do I claim that we are friends. However, I think I’ve had enough personal interaction with him to know if he is the genuine article or not. I can say, unequivocally, that he is. We’ve had no interaction since Wheldon was fatally injured, but I can assure you that he is hurting as much or more than any of us.

I know very little of the sport that Randy Bernard came from – Professional Bull Riding. I know that PBR was almost invisible when Randy Bernard took over in 1994, but by the time he left to move to INDYCAR, he had taken them to levels of popularity that no one had dared dream of. I also know that, like IndyCar racing, bull riding is a very dangerous sport, but I don’t know if that sport ever suffered any fatalities during the fifteen years that Mr. Bernard was at the helm.

In the short time that Randy Bernard has been on board leading our sport, he has seen the highest highs and the lowest lows – all within a five-month span. He has kick-started our once-dormant sport and had a large hand in the highly successful Centennial Celebration of this year’s Indianapolis 500. He recognized what an unusual situation having Dan Wheldon winning the race was, since he was a one-off. It was not an ideal set of circumstances that the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner was sitting on the sidelines for the rest of the season.

I will admit his challenge to any non-IndyCar driver was ill conceived. I think it is now painfully clear that only drivers with significant experience in these cars should be racing them. A couple of test sessions is not enough to prepare even the likes of Jimmie Johnson or Kasey Kahne, much less a rider from the X-Games.

As it became obvious that no one was really interested in taking up the challenge, Bernard thought it would be great exposure to have the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, who had captured so much attention a few months earlier – go for the challenge. He would start from the back of the field to make it even more challenging. If successful, Wheldon would split the $5 million with a random fan who would enter online.

Even as Wheldon was interviewed from his car via radio just before the race went green, he referred to this as “…a great opportunity that Randy Bernard has given me”. He went on to say that if he didn’t honestly think he could win, he wouldn’t be doing it.

The mainstream media has been all over this. On my way to work Tuesday morning, a friend called to tell me of a segment of The Today Show on NBC. I have not seen this, so I’m relaying this second hand, but supposedly they referred to the promotion as a “dare” by INDYCAR and that they and Randy Bernard set Wheldon up to die. Those are some very strong words. If this was really what was said, then shame on them.

Without turning this discussion political – long ago, NBC lost its status as a credible news source. They have had a reputation for years of twisting facts in order to promote their own agenda – whatever that may be. They’ve now done it regarding INDYCAR, in order to join the throngs of the media that don’t understand racing, but have jumped on this story in order to legislate auto racing from existence.

Unfortunately, a much more credible news source – The Wall Street Journal – has decided to take on the supposed evils of auto racing. Two authors, Alexandra Berzon and Rachel Bachman, have attempted to put their spin on what they think led to what happened last Sunday. You don’t have to read very far to realize that these two know nothing about our sport. Yet, they use their credible employer as a platform to get the point across that they think Randy Bernard was gambling with driver’s lives in the name of marketing.

If you’ve read this site for very long, you know that I don’t consider myself to be a journalist at all. I’m just a fan, just like everyone else. I just like to write about the sport I love. To us that know this sport, it is obvious that these two had no business writing this article. But to those that know little or nothing of our sport, having The Wall Street Journal come down on IndyCar racing makes the attacks seem justified. Feel free to read the article here.

This is one of the most blatant examples of irresponsible journalism that I can think of. Here you have two writers that are tackling a subject they know nothing about in order to advance their careers by creating a stir, in sort of an odd form of drive-by journalism. Next week, they’ll move on to some other sensationalistic topic. In the meantime, the damage to IndyCar has been done in the eyes of the public. If I didn’t know this sport, by reading this article – I would assume that Randy Bernard was an irresponsible leader who should be ousted and this was a sport that needed to be disbanded.

I had it brought to my attention in mid-week that Randy Bernard’s Facebook page had a post from someone demanding his resignation immediately and blaming him directly for Dan Wheldon’s death. To whomever this person was, I’ll go back to Kevin Lee’s response – do you have no heart?

I fully believe Randy Bernard to be a good and decent man, who also happens to be a good businessman – not the other way around. When he first made the announcement that Wheldon had passed away and when he spoke so well at yesterday’s memorial service, you could tell that his heart was aching. It wasn’t because he was worried about his job or his own legacy or reputation – it was because he had lost a friend. For anyone – fan or non-fan – to suggest that Randy Bernard is responsible for Dan Wheldon’s death is asinine and completely irresponsible.

Such irresponsibility and irrational comments are not limited to the mainstream media. A late comment from a reader on this site on last Wednesday’s post, attacked Randy Bernard and suggested that all ovals should be removed from the 2012 schedule. He also claimed that the 2012 car was more dangerous than the current Dallara. I have no idea what his source of information was, but I think that everyone needs to take a deep breath before we all get hysterical.

There are things the series can learn from Wheldon’s accident. Certain rules and safety precautions will be implemented. I’m still hopeful that Kentucky will return for next year along with New Hampshire, but I think there is now a good chance that Las Vegas may disappear from the 2012 schedule. But to suggest that all ovals go away is almost as ridiculous and over-reactionary as insisting that Randy Bernard should resign.

The events of last Sunday are going to be a blow to this sport. Aside from the fact that it lost a great friend, the sport will feel the ramifications from this for a long time. There are a lot of irrational and irresponsible comments out there bordering on hysteria. After yesterday’s tragic death of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, expect the comments to intensify. We need someone who can keep a clear and calm head about them, to be leading this sport in the next few months. I fully believe that Randy Bernard is the best person to have his hand on the tiller as the sport navigates some pretty treacherous waters over the next few months. There are many new problems facing INDYCAR in the coming months that no one foresaw just ten days ago.

Going into Las Vegas, the series had a lot of momentum on its side and there was a good vibe headed into the offseason. Now there is a lot of heartache that will quickly be replaced by a multitude of questions – many without answers. It’s bad enough to have the mainstream media commenting on things they know nothing about as they attempt to bring down the sport we love. To have a few supposed fans adding to the hysteria is not only unfortunate, it’s irresponsible.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “The Sting Of Irresponsible Journalism”

  1. I am a big Dan Wheldon fan and I always will be, but as tragic as the loss of Dan is, I am still the same INDYCAR fan I have always been. With that noted, I think that Randy is doing a great job and I am enjoying the direction that the sport is going in. I like the new car, I like the Texas Twin races and I like the added professionalism that I have noted in the garage area as well as the over-all feel of the events. As for the WSJ and other publications who have disparged the series, they do the same with football and on all levels (i.e. pee-wee, juniors, high school, college and pro). Let’s keep going forward.

  2. For anyone who may not know, the Wall Street Journal was purchased by Rupert Murdoch several years ago.

  3. My only concern over the past week was Randy’s silence between Sunday and Wednesday. Some felt (myself included) that he had “bailed” on LVMS, leaving them holding the “bag,” and possibly discouraging them from future participation. One well-placed presser might have stopped that, but, in retrospect, I suspect Mr. Bernard had plenty on his plate and perhaps I was overthinking.

    Having said that, I won’t say that I don’t have some anxiety about the “optional” driver’s meeting today. All things considered and looking at all the uninformed “flack” that he has gotten surrounding the Vegas race, is it too far-fetched to think Randy might resign?

    • I share your concern, but I don’t think he is a quitter and I think that the drivers know he is the right man for the job. Quitting would seem to validate his critics in my opinion. Of course, the demands of his job even before the Las Vegas race would seemingly stress his family life. Let’s give him all the support we can, he has earned it.

  4. Wow, almost as many agree with the “journalists” as those who pay no attention to them. Of course, then again George’s question mentions blaming IndyCar not Bernard. So I guess I could agree with either. Bernard did nothing to cause this. He inherited pack racing with high downforce, under-powered cars on high banked 1.5 mile tracks. 34 starters was the result of a car about to be retired – would have happened with or without Bernard. Wheldon starting at the rear… How many times has TK or Schecktor started at the back due to an engine change or a crash in qualifying? This has been building for years. All Bernard did was step in and try to sell something nobody has really tried to sell for years.

    • I failed to mention… I am worried about Bernard. We need him a lot. I cannot imagine how it feels to have the attention focused on him the way it is. He promoted and he promoted hard. That was his job. The promotion didn’t kill Dan Wheldon even if the promotion crossed over into playing up how dangerous this sport can be.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Don’t pay attention to the pole. The normal number of responders is way disproportional to the number of hits today. In short, someone has been stuffing the ballot box for the third choice. – GP

  5. saddened in Florida Says:

    Another well-reasoned, well-written blog post.
    Lamestream media members who ignore our sport the other 51 weeks per year can shut the heck up rather than spin freak accidents to get ratings or sales.

  6. james t suel Says:

    Good blog, there are many morons writing about this sport that know nothing! There are also many fans that do not realy understand racing. Here is a news flash, this sport is dangerous ,cruel and very unforgiving of mistakes. It always will be such,thats why its head&shouders above the other sports, our sport is know childerns game !

  7. carburetor Says:

    Sensationalism seems to be the rule of the day when it comes to media reporting these days. Sadly, there seems to be an element of our society that believes that something, or someone, must be to blame for all that happens—whether it be good or bad. The media that you reference in your post are excellent examples of this trend—neither outlet have audiences that would likely follow our sport—at least to the depth required to understand what the sport is truly about. Additionally, I would contend that the WSJ is not the creditable source you claim it to be—it long ago forfeited that respect once it was acquired by News Corps (who also happens to own the two papers referred to in the WSJ article that Bernard spoke with earlier in the year). It is easy to see the opportunity/strategy the two reporters followed in order to sensationalize this tragedy, and thus maliciously lay blame on Bernard.

    A much more balanced article, written to an audience that is more likely to understand the risks and rewards of the sport, appeared in Sports Illustrated by Lars Anderson. It refrains from the sensationalism strategy used to sell market share, etc.

    Randy Bernard faced significant challenges upon being named the CEO; and he has encountered new challenges since his tenure. Undoubtedly, he will have even more due to the outcome of the LV race. I cannot think of anyone better suited to lead IndyCar through these issues. He has done a terrific job at promoting our sport in some of the more challenging economic times in our country’s history. It is my hope that he will stay the course and lead the series to a sustainable future, and that IndyCar fans will voice their support for his dedication to the task.

  8. I agree with everything you just said, George. Randy Bernard is a good leader, I hope he’s a tough leader.

  9. Well, you can ask my wife about my reaction to the piece on the Today Show that you mentioned up near the top of this post. As Matt Lauer basically attempted to browbeat (unsuccessfully, I might add) Mario Andretti and Townsend Bell into admitting that the $5 million challenge was what directly killed Dan Wheldon (I think I remember him saying something like “isn’t that a lot of money, and just asking Dan to take a bunch of risks?”), a stream of obscenity befitting a well seasoned sailor came flowing out of my mouth like the Mighty Mississippi (and to Mrs. Speedgeek’s credit, I believe she simultaneously said “that’s a bunch of crap”).

    Let’s see:
    1) Dan was widely thought that he might be doing the Vegas race as far back as, um, May 30th, because the car he’d just won the Indy 500 in would be a glorified planter box the day after the Vegas race. If you’ve got a fast oval car and a few extra dollars, why not run it at Vegas, right? At least that was the thinking as I ate my traditional Memorial Day morning Charlie Brown’s pancakes and bacon. Ergo, Dan was already a possible Vegas entry (and possibily announced as an official entry, I just can’t remember) MONTHS before he was up for the $5 million.

    2) My memory is getting a little hazy in my advancing age, but I’m pretty sure the challenge wasn’t whether or not Dan could lead lap 20 at Vegas, it was whether or not he could lead lap 200. He wasn’t out there taking outrageous risks in order to get into the lead ASAP, he was minding his own business. You know, the exact way he’d won the 500 back in May. Oh, but I think you probably weren’t watching either of the races in question, Mr. Lauer. That’s fine, make up whatever story you want, as long as it fits your narrative.

    3) The complaints from other fans that there were 8 more cars than are allowed by “IRL (usually this argument is brought up by people who don’t even bother to disguise their disdain for Tony George and/or their allegiance to CART, which I used to hold both of those back in the day but then I GREW UP) rules”, yeah, that 26 car cap was introduced largely to keep Milka Duno out of the Series if she was 10 MPH off the pace, not because of any sort of safety cap. Milka’s gone, and even the drivers at the back of the pack are at least competent nowadays, so by all means, let’s throw all the cars we can out there. The difference between 34 cars on the grid and the regular 26 to 28 cars that we’ve been seeing otherwise this year is a pretty subtle difference (I’d suggest that most of those 6-8 extra cars were already behind Dan before the wreck even happened, and didn’t play into his circumstances one iota), and as Robin Miller recently pointed out, you could have just as easily had a similar accident with 24 cars on the grid (although this is one of the arguments in that stupid WSJ article when they say “The Indy circuit packed more cars into each contest, for instance.”, which had less to do with Randy’s wishes and a whole lot more to do with the rising tide of the Series itself attracting more sponsors and more teams, and really, thanks for so clearly illustrating your lack of understanding of anything that’s happened ever, Ms. Berzon and Ms. Bachman).

    There’s a whole lot that went wrong, obviously. These three things, the ones that the lazy mainstream media have been beating on endlessly because they’re “obvious”, they had zilch to do with the whole thing. Sorry for the book-length answer, but I have been extremely fired up. Thanks for the outlet here and the well-written original post, George.

  10. Bravo, George! Dead on. This is **exactly** the sort of message that needs to go out to the mass sports media who don’t understand that there’s more to racin’ than rubbin’.

    “To whomever this person was, I’ll go back to Kevin Lee’s response – do you have no heart?”

    Actually, my answer is, does that person have no capacity to reason? The car formula was in place well before Bernard came in, and he’s responsible for pushing beyond it. Also, his job ended once the green flag waved; at that point, he was as much a spectator as the rest of us.

    Let’s also keep in mind that 14 other drivers survived the wrecks. Furthermore, I fully believe that had Wheldon’s car not hit the catch fence on its topside, thus exposing his head to impact, he may well have survived. People are looking for blame, but discount random circumstance. Had his car flipped in any other way, he might still have been pretty badly injured, but he may not be dead.

    It’s a total freak occurance that his car ended up presenting its topside to the fence. How many times has that happened? This converesation would’ve happened far sooner if Conway’s wreck last year at Indianapolis happened in the same way, and hit the fence there in the same manner. Yet, I’ll bet that fully 3/4ths of the media commentariat couldn’t even name Conway, let alone remember that he wrecked at IMS.

    I don’t mind at all that the series sees fit to re-examine many of its practices. That said, I’d hope that everyone would applaud calm, collected, thoughtful analysis, and not just sink to knee-jerk reactionism. Problem is, I’m seeing so much of that happening. Where were these people when the series was doing fine? I, like George, cannot imagine that the long-following fans are the ones saying “fire Bernard” or mouthing off with ill-thought statements about the wreck and Indycar in general.

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