Jim Ayello Has Proven Himself

Last week, I caught a glimpse of something on Twitter that made me dig a little deeper. As it turned out, Jim Ayello of The Indianapolis Star was announcing that his role at The Star would be changing soon and that he would be moving over from covering IndyCar to covering the Colts as his full-time job.

I had meant to write about this on Monday, but the McLaren news sort of made me shift topics at the last minute.

Jim Ayello came to The Indianapolis Star when longtime IndyCar beat-writer Curt Cavin left The Star after almost thirty-five years, in order to go work for IndyCar. For years, The Star featured Cavin and Robin Miller both covering IndyCar full-time. Miller left The Star under curious circumstances around 2000 and went to ESPN and ESPN.com. before migrating over to Racer.com by way of the old SpeedTV.com. After Miller’s departure, Curt Cavin was viewed as the lone IndyCar voice at The Star until the offseason between the 2016 and 2017 IndyCar seasons.

Between his experience, his excellent writing and his weekly appearance on Trackside, Curt Cavin was recognized by many as the go-to source for IndyCar news. Hard-core fans also read Miller, David Malsher, John Oreovicz and Marshall Pruett; but Curt Cavin was probably the one name that most casual IndyCar fans knew.

That all changed in February of 2017, when The Star made a former intern named Jim Ayello the lead IndyCar beat-writer. In all honesty, I was shocked. The white-haired Cavin, who had been with the paper since the mid-80s, had been replaced by what appeared to be a young kid not even old enough to shave. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

At the time, it almost seemed like a bad joke. Just a month earlier, John Oreovicz of ESPN.com had been let go as part of ESPN’s infamous purge and was very available; but The Star chose to go with a former intern who didn’t seem to know the first thing about racing; instead of Oreovicz, who had over twenty years of experience.

Two months later at Barber, Ayello and I spent the weekend sitting next to each other in the Media Center. To be blunt; I wasn’t impressed. He seemed nice enough and we chatted some, but he also seemed very reclusive and spent most of the weekend with his oversized headphones on. It’s not like I’m a chatter box in the Media Center, but at first I took it that he just didn’t want to talk to me. Since then, I’ve seen him wear those things at every race while he’s working.

The first few months on the job, it wasn’t pretty for Ayello. To be fair, he was thrown into the deep end of the pool with no life-jacket. He made some gaffes, like not knowing the difference between Road America and the Milwaukee Mile. Like many just starting out in racing, he seemed to question what the big deal was about the Indianapolis 500. Worst of all, he didn’t seem to mind tweeting out his political opinions to all of his followers.

He and I follow each other on Twitter and I sent him a private message about two months after sitting with him at Barber, to give him some unsolicited fatherly advice, since I’m probably more than thirty years older than he is. I told him that I didn’t think it was his place to pontificate about politics in his role as a beat writer. I explained that people follow him for the latest IndyCar news and not to learn what he thinks about the political landscape. He responded politely with how he appreciated my concern, but he thought it was his duty as a journalist to not “stay in his lane” and to share his thoughts with others. Hmmm…my opinion of Mr. Ayello was not improving.

But you know what? My opinion of Jim Ayello did change and it changed dramatically. With the arrival of the 2018 season, Ayello had a year under his belt. In that time, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone grow into a role that big, quicker than Ayello did. When he started, I’m not sure he knew the difference between CART, Champ Car, IndyCar or NASCAR. But in that first year, he immersed himself into this sport so much that not only could he speak intelligently about it – he knew the ins and outs of all the current happenings, as well as the complicated history of the sport.

It seems easy to us because many of us have lived and breathed IndyCar for most of our lives. But unless you have been a fan since childhood, this is a very hard sport to jump in, follow and learn about. But in that first year, Jim Ayello did just that. He seemed to pick up every little nuance of the sport by the time the 2018 season started.

After the 2017 season, when I had pretty much quit reading The Star for IndyCar news – Ayello got to where he could not only break news stories, but he could write thought-provoking articles as adeptly as Robin Miller. I had to remind myself that I was not reading the words of a grizzled veteran that had been ingrained into the sport for the last forty years, but instead a twenty-something year-old kid who knew very little about this sport until recently.

This past May, Susan and I had dinner with a real IndyCar journalist (not a lowly blogger) at Dawson’s, and the conversation got around to Jim Ayello. I admitted to him that I didn’t care for Ayello at all when he started, but he had earned my respect by diving in and being a sponge to absorb everything he could to learn about the IndyCar world. How quickly things changed. Two and a half years ago, I considered Jim Ayello an unlikable punch line and figured he would wash out quickly. A year later, I was beginning to rethink everything about my stance. By the beginning of the 2019 IndyCar season, I was a big Jim Ayello fan. Why? Because he proved himself.

It doesn’t hurt that he became more approachable. The standoffish kid I tried to chat with in Birmingham in April of 2017 was probably just very nervous, although why a lowly over-aged blogger with a southern accent would intimidate him is beyond me. Now when I see him, we always speak and exchange pleasantries. This past May, he and I were chatting in the garage area during practice when someone with McLaren came up to talk to him (not me). He immediately went into reporter mode and started asking some hard-hitting questions about why they were not up to speed. I was impressed at how quickly he thought on his feet and shifted to question after question. It reminded me of why I don’t do interviews, because I don’t think that quickly.

So now, Jim Ayello has been tabbed as one of the two Colts beat reporters for The Indianapolis Star. Good for him! I’m sure his work ethic in learning the ins and outs of IndyCar has not gone unnoticed with his bosses. He has landed a major gig at a young age, that I would guess is still under thirty. Some have seen a little miffed that he has used IndyCar as a stepping stone to further his career. I don’t begrudge him in the least. Unless he grew up as an IndyCar fan, chances are he didn’t grow up dreaming of being the next Curt Cavin or Robin Miller. Instead, he most likely grew up dreaming of being the next Adam Schefter from ESPN or Peter King from Sports Illustrated covering the NFL.

I have no problem with that. Like it or not, the NFL is king in the sports world. It’s normal to want to make your name there as a journalist, rather than in a sport that – like it or not – is still pretty much a niche sport like IndyCar.

It’s almost ironic that Jim Ayello has done his best work in the same week he announced he would be shifting over to the Colts. I thought his take on the whole McLaren fiasco last weekend was more spot-on than his much more experienced contemporaries. Just when he has hit his stride, he is leaving us.

But I wish Jim Ayello all the best. He’s a stand-up guy who has gotten this latest assignment the old-fashioned way. He earned it through hard work. I feel guilty by the way I misjudged him early on. I never trashed him here or on social media, but I can’t truthfully say I didn’t make snide remarks to a few close friends in private early in his career at his expense. But I also ended up praising him privately later on, to those same friends. I guess turnabout is fair play.

So I wish Jim good luck covering the Colts. He earned it. I hope we will still cross paths occasionally. Football fans will be better off from the loss suffered by IndyCar fans. Go Titans!

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Jim Ayello Has Proven Himself”

  1. I remember Jim kinda got tossed into the IndyCar gig knowing nothing about it and I was impressed with how he caught on and dove into it, his articles were good and he will be missed. Good luck to him.

    Funny thing about the Indy Star, I’ve seen a recent push on Twitter from them and their employees about how important it is for us to pay for their service and support “local news”. I’ve read four or five of their articles in the last couple weeks, from multiple writers, and all of them had multiple typos and/or grammatical errors. Really? This is what you’re wanting me to pay for? Maybe try a bit harder.

    • That’s a Gannett thing. They’re doing the same thing with The Tennessean here. The Tennessean has devolved into a joke.

      • I figured as much, it all felt very copy/paste from a corporate template.

      • billytheskink Says:

        I would say that is a nationwide trend in newspapers. Editors seem to be the biggest victims of the industry’s constant cost-cutting, with errors, typos, and young writers whose styles need some refining abounding.

        I appreciate the challenging times that most newspapers are facing, but it is hard to attract paying readers when such things are not being caught.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I loved Jim as an INDYCAR writer and found him very approachable the last year or two. We will miss him on the racing side but welcome him on the Colts side. The Titans big brother is again waiting for two more wins this season. Go Colts!

  3. Bruce in NBP Says:

    George, Had the exact same take on Jim as you did. It may be difficult for the Star to replace him with a full-time beat writer. I find it a little unsettling that the Star did not name his replacement immediately. Also a bit troubled about the lack of coverage of IndyCar and the stagnant ratings of the races on NBC. Bruce

  4. billytheskink Says:

    All credit to Ayello for working hard and becoming quite good on a beat he surely did not dream of having when he first thought of being a journalist. I’m sad to see him leave the Indycar beat.

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