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The Way It Is/ Ruminating about why there are no successful American racing magazines

by Gordon Kirby
We were in the garage area at Daytona back in January during practice for this year's Rolex 24 hours. I was in one of Chip Ganassi's garages talking to Scott Pruett, Casey Mears and Scott Dixon, three of six drivers aboard Ganassi's pair of Riley-Lexus Grand-Am cars. I've known Pruett forever, and Casey since he was a kid, and at one point in the conversation Scott turned to me, grinning. "Hey," he asked. "What magazine do you write for these days?"

It's not an uncommon question for me in this day and age. I quietly tell whomever asks that I write three or four stories a year for Road & Track and add that I'm busy working on new book and television projects to be announced shortly. Since we launced this website I've been able to suggest to people that they visit the site to check out what new projects I'm working on and also to read this column on a regular basis. But as far as American racing magazines, well I'm afraid to say, there really aren't any, are there?

There's a fleet of NASCAR magazines, of course, and there's AutoWeek, a car mag with a dusting of racing. There's Speed Sport News, the sport's weekly newspaper, still going strong after more than fifty years, and there's the monthly Racer and a few historic publications. But there's no widely-distributed, broad-based racing magazine serving American motor racing. Thirty and more years ago, Road & Track and Car & Driver used to lavish a lot of space on racing, but those days are long-gone. Today, Road & Track runs one, sometimes two racing stories per month, while Car & Driver is even less attentive to the sport.

When I state this little homily, people perk up, as Pruett did, and say, "Yeah, I guess you're right." Indeed, for some twenty-five years, one of the driving forces in my career was to be part of creating a healthy American racing magazine with a strong editorial perspective. Over the years, I've been through a number of attempts to achieve this goal but none have succeeded, and if you look back over history you can see that there have been many well-meaning but failed attempts to create and sustain a broad-based motor racing magazine in this country. Many European countries--England, France, Germany, Italy--enjoy long-standing weekly or monthly racing mags readily available on the newsstands, as do Australia and Japan, yet America is devoid of such an animal. Why is this so?

A big part of it, of course, is the triumph of NASCAR and the concurrent failures of both American open-wheel and sports car racing so that the rest of the sport outside NASCAR is pretty much irrelevant. As a result there are plenty of thriving NASCAR publications including Street & Smith's NASCAR Scene weekly newspaper which sells 130,000 copies and enjoys the largest circulation of any racing newspaper in the world. Also, Sports Illustrated publishes a lavish annual NASCAR special edition while Dick Berggren, former editor of Stock Car Racing and Open Wheel magazines, publishes his monthly Speedway Illustrated, like the Scene newspaper, in company with NASCAR.

Another factor in the lack of any thriving broad-based American racing magazine is the extremely fractious nature of the sport in this country. There's NASCAR and all the many regional and local derivatives of stock car racing, and there's midget and sprint car racing, off-road racing, NHRA drag racing, Champ Car, IRL, ALMS, GrandAm, SCCA and a myriad of regional groups like the northeast's DIRT modified series. Some of the fan groups for these individual series or types of racing are mutually exclusive and don't much care about most other forms of racing. For a magazine to properly cover this vast panoply of American motor sport is a difficult and expensive business and the rewards in a coherent readership and advertising base just aren't there. And let's not forget that without Speed Sport News there would not be any form of print media documenting the entire American racing scene.

Over the years there have been many attempts to establish something other than Speed Sport News, including Motor Age in the early days, Speed Age in the fifties and sixties, Competition Press & Autoweek in the sixties and seventies, OnTrack in the eighties, and Racer in the nineties through today. None have endured in anything close to their original form. AutoWeek has become much more a car magazine, roughly similar to Road & Track and Car & Driver with some token racing coverage. OnTrack was bought by Street & Smiths who eventually killed it amid dwindling circulation. Racer survives, but with less depth dare I say, and half the circulation we were able to achieve in the magazine's early, pre-Haymarket days. I will be surprised if Racer doesn't suffer the same fate as OnTrack in the not too distant future.

For my part, I freelanced for Competition Press & Autoweek in the seventies and again in the eighties when it had become just AutoWeek. In the mid to late seventies I also worked for Formula which later became Race Car magazine. Formula literally was published, initially at least, in a garage in Southern California by a bunch of Formula Ford racers including Hugh Mooney, who was the editor, and Paul Pfanner, who was the art director. Formula was sold to John Benton, a Formula 5000 driver and heir to the Encyclopedia Britannica fortune, but Benton caused me to lose interest and I took up instead with Paul Oxman who I had met through Paul Pfanner and my friend Paul Webb.

Oxman published a racing calendar (he still does today) and motorcycle books and wanted to tackle a racing publication. I talked to Oxman and agreed to sign on as the founding editor-at-large of a bi-weekly newspaper we called OnTrack. I helped install a guy named Steve Nickless as the editorial director and my friend and colleague John Zimmermann as the editor, and through my connections with Autosport in England, for whom I covered North America, I helped arrange a worldwide chain of correspondents for Oxman's impecunious new venture.

I had hoped to turn OnTrack into a weekly to challenge Speed Sport News and attempt to duplicate Autosport's role in the UK market. We made a good start but the resources weren't there to even half-properly fund the writers and photographers or distribute the publication in any useful way.

During my time with OnTrack I met Robb Griggs, a tall, lean, bearded and fiercely energetic fellow from Alabama. Griggs was the founder of what became today's NASCAR Scene. At the time, he published a small newspaper called Grand National Scene and had ambitions to break into the growing CART Indy Car market. In 1981 Griggs picked up the Indy Car World Series Annual from a couple of fellows from Vermont who shall remain nameless who had published an annual in 1980 which I had written and edited. These Vermonters failed to pay their bills and I liked Griggs, wildman that he was and undoubtedly still is.

We produced Indy Car World Series Annuals in 1982 and '83 and Griggs also decided to try publishing a monthly Indy car magazine. His infectious enthusiasm convinced me to turn my back on OnTrack and throw in with him to create Indy Car Racing magazine. Here again, I was editor-at-large, while continuing to earn my basic bread from Autosport as their American editor.

But over the next few years, Griggs' enthusiasm for CART waned, then vanished, and he decided to sell ICR and focus on NASCAR. At one point Griggs urged me to forget about open-wheel racing and move south to Charlotte to work for him in NASCAR. I laughed and turned him down, although I chuckled out the other side of my face ten years later when Griggs sold what was then known as Winston Cup Scene to Street & Smith's for more than a few million dollars and jogged away into early retirement!

In the meantime, AutoWeek's Leon Mandel had hired a new, young editor named George Damon Levy to transform AutoWeek from a weekly tabloid-style newspaper into a magazine. George was and is a bright, charming fellow, and he convinced me to join him to write about all kinds of racing and help AutoWeek make the switch from a newspaper to magazine. It worked really well for a few years but then Levy decided to leave and after his departure I found myself squabbling with publisher/editor Mandel and writing specifically and only about CART. I'm among a long list of writers who had a difficult time working with Leon and at the end of 1988, amid some odious CART politics, Mandel 'benched' me. He brought me back in May of '89, but fired me at the end of the year and I was happy to go my own way.

I continued with Autosport of course, and in 1991 I was also hired by Marlboro to write race reports and news stories about CART for the Marlboro Racing News, a newly-created bulletin board on the rapidly evolving Internet. The Marlboro news service operated for ten years and was very effective, providing newspapers and magazines around the world with coverage of Indy car racing. Amusingly, I was twice fired by CART for writing too much of the truth and then re-hired at Marlboro's insistence as they fought with CART to make the point that the site was not a pr tool, that it was instead about generating news and being of genuine use to reporters around the world.

Meanwhile in 1992, after eighteen months of talking and planning, I helped Paul Pfanner start Racer magazine. Again, I was editor-at-large covering as much of the sport as I could with a focus on CART. We had a good, lean team with my old friend John Zimmermann (also an ex-AutoWeek guy) serving as editor, and I will always remember Leon Mandel stomping his feet and barking at me on the occasion of Racer's debut at Long Beach in '92. "How do you guys think you can make it happen?" Mandel growled. "You don't have the money to do it!" My proud reply was: "We're all going to work awfully hard."

The magazine started strong and was soon selling 50,000 copies each month. It went well for a few years but the lack of resources and a desire to take on more projects gnawed away at us. In 1993 Pfanner asked me to start writing a weekly fax newsletter called RaceWeek and I tackled the project with relish, but with reservations for its effect on my role in Racer. I told Pfanner that RaceWeek would take a lot of my time and deflect my focus from Racer, and sure enough that's what happened.

I was also hammering out Marlboro's news stories because Pfanner couldn't afford to pay my expenses. In fact, other than AutoWeek, none of the many magazines I've worked for over the years have paid travel expenses. Eventually at the end of 1997, unhappy with the way things were headed at Racer and hopeful that Haymarket in England, publishers of Autosport, were going to do something in the USA, I threw in the towel with Racer.

I had written occasionally for Road & Track over the years and was hired in 1998 to write a monthly column covering CART. I decided it was best to go mainstream with Road & Track rather than fighting the tide with struggling, small market magazines. After all, Road & Track is a globally known brand, unlike the tiny niche market names Racer, or even Autosport, which are entirely unknown to the average man. More recently, R&T decided to change its format of racing coverage to publishing one or two features per month about racing rather than trying to regularly cover each major form of racing. I think it's the right move for them and I enjoy working with Thom Bryant and his editorial team who are a great bunch of people with real enthusiasm for cars and racing. But the space is limited and that's a little frustrating.

Of course, it's all about advertising. That's what drives any commercial media and that's why R&T and C&D are the car magazines they are today rather than racing mags. NASCAR and ISC know this lesson well and the rest of the sport needs to learn it. If you look at a recent Road & Track you'll see well-produced advertorials for the Rolex Grand-Am series, which is owned by NASCAR, and it's one way they will steadily, on little cat feet, build interest over the years in the Grand-Am. Many years ago John Zimmermann and I worked with the late Jon Thompson on three or four Indy 500 special section advertorials for Road & Track, but nobody from within the sport followed up to continue the tradition. I think the likes of Champ Car and IRL need to be much smarter about doing things like this if they are going to rebuild their image and positions in the market.

Today, the Internet rules of course, and there are many racing websites to feed people's thirst for news. There's also wall-to-wall coverage on Speed TV so that, on the face of it, there's much less need for a racing magazine. But from my conversations with many people in the business, fans included, I believe a properly resourced magazine featuring lengthy stories with real substance could fly in the United States. People still like the tactility and presentation of a quality magazine and there's a thirst out there for good writing about the people, cars and engineering.

But let's not forget that Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. After all these years, I think I've finally learned my lesson!

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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