It doesn’t seem possible that we have reached the mid-point in the 2013 racing season already. Wasn’t it just yesterday that our jaws hit the floor upon hearing of Sal Fish’s sale of SCORE to Roger Norman? But time and progress marches ever forward. With the first half of this racing year and the 4th of July holiday now nothing but memories, taking stock of where our sport sits with so much hope and potential on the line in 2013 seems like the right thing to do?
So, without further rambling, here are the three biggest and most impactful developments of this very pivotal year in off-road motorsports:
SST: A MIXED BAG
At this point in its short life, it’s really unclear how to judge the first season of Robby Gordon’s ambitious and expensive Stadium Super Truck (SST) endeavor. There has been lots of good, some bad, and just recently it seems, a touch of ugly.
Let’s start with the upside. Despite the many naysayers, Mr. Gordon and his crew thrashed and clawed their way to the historic SST premiere in the cavernous space of the University of Phoenix Stadium. Thousands of man hours went into building the new fleet of trucks, and 400 dump trucks delivered the dirt needed to transform a modern football stadium into Gordon’s version of the old Mickey Thompson stadium racing. Most importantly, the often mercurial racer did what exactly he said he was going to do — thus laying an improbably successful smack down to those who didn’t believe.
In the months since Phoenix, Gordon hit more homers that seemed impossible just a year ago – namely having the Stadium Super Trucks on display on the streets of Long Beach for the Toyota Grand Prix; taking his show to the hallowed ground of the Los Angeles Coliseum and also delivering on an NBC television package. The on-track action with the newly designed trucks also proved remarkable, especially in the hands of such veterans as Rob MacCachren, Justin Lofton, P.J. Jones and Gordon himself.
Truthfully, the bad has been really inflicted by Robby himself – mainly in announcing an overly ambitious national schedule that meant taking his expensive show on the road during its first season of operation. The SST crew managed to execute six races in just nine weeks, but a challenging trip to St. Louis that failed to meet ticket sales objectives forced Gordon to reset the bar. As a result, SST events in Chicago’s Soldier Field, Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, Dallas Cowboys Stadium and the Minneapolis Metrodome were replaced by far less financially taxing visits to the Toronto IndyCar Series race, a co-race with TORC at Chicagoland Speedway and a return to Crandon International over the Labor Day weekend.
Of course, history will note that there is no shame in this return to earth from Gordon’s original plans. Even in the Mickey Thompson series’ heyday, the show never really found an audience outside of big events in the southwest. Rumor has it the stadium shows were costing up to seven figures to produce, and without a big sponsor or sponsors to help build an audience over several years (or more), the excessive bleeding had to be stemmed.
Now whether or not this financial burden had any effect on the now severed relationship between Gordon and businessman/partner Clyde Stacy. Robby confirmed to me that the ties had been broken, and that he “now has to do what I always do, just dig deeper and work harder.” He has pulled off miracles up until now, but the next six months in SST’s history should be interesting to say the least.
GROWING PAINS AT SCORE
We all realized that the sudden retirement of Sal Fish resulting from the purchase of SCORE International by Roger Norman would change the course of desert racing’s future. In my December season preview column, I made the suggestion that “the real significance of SCORE International’s takeover by Roger Norman’s regime won’t be fully realized until well into next year – or longer.” While that may be true, already certain things are coming into focus after two races at the San Felipe 250 and the Baja 500 under Norman’s regime.
Just as in life, change can be difficult. And certainly it’s clear that Norman and his crew had no intention of keeping things status quo. Right from the get-go, it was obvious that this is not your father’s (or even older brother’s) SCORE International. Such improvements as more efficient online registration and the advent of the weekly DirtLive Internet broadcasts were brimming with hope and potential. The nearly instant influx of Monster Energy as a partner for SCORE’s marketing efforts added instant status and resources – especially in area such as onsite hospitality.
While Fish is likely of the mindset he handed Norman a SCORE that wasn’t broken (and for good reason from many perspectives), the group’s first outing at San Felipe again brought to light some of the underlying issues with technology, course creativity and official results that had boiled to the surface at Sal’s 2012 Baja 1000 swan song. Nobody, including Roger and his crew, were happy about the fact that it took about a week to get out official results from the race. To his credit, he quickly enacted changes to the process for the Baja 500, especially about limiting the time a protest could be filed after the event. This was a crucial step in regaining some of SCORE’s professional reputation. The world at large, especially in this day and age, wants instant results for instant dumping into the social media machine.
Credit is also due to Norman for realizing that much of SCORE’s brand equity is its long and colorful history. Part of the new SCORE is expanding media presence, so the purchase by Norman of award-winning producer Don Shoemaker’s extensive collection of old SCORE races is a gift that will insure part of our sport’s history isn’t lost in a closet somewhere.
There were more rumblings from some quarters after last month’s Baja 500 regarding the treatment of clients (racers), miscommunication with racers and media revolving around the historic pre-race qualifying and other various items. From my perspective, those kinds of things are absolutely inevitable during the new SCORE’S rather steep learning curve. It’s easy to remember that Sal Fish was able to perfect his diplomatic and political skills over decades of promoting races.
With SCORE’s biggest event yet to come in 2013, Norman and company have some time to keep honing their spear before November’s Baja 1000. Given his predecessors success of maintaining the 1000’s legacy since 1974, perhaps taking a glance at the past while trailblazing toward the future might be wise for the always hard-working Roger Norman.
MAKING A NEW MINT
Sure, it would be easy to assume that Mad Media’s business relationship with RDC comes with some editorial license guaranteeing great coverage for their signature Mint 400 event. And it does to an extent, but this type of cynicism plays down just how far things have come since the Martelli brothers and Mad Media took over this motorsports classic.
Now in their second year of the Mint’s overall management, via long-term vision, hard work and the support of a growing list of corporate partners the race has gone from so-so (the SNORE years) to spectacular. In terms of a single event, it wouldn’t be incorrect in saying the General Tire Mint 400 circa 2013 has become the most polished and professionally promoted race in all of off-road motorsports outside of the Dakar rally.
One encouraging shift that Mint 400 represents is just how powerful our sport could become by “promoters” realizing that they cannot be all things to all people. Casey Folks is a world-class race organizer and a true hero when it comes to the political continuum of working with the BLM and other government agencies, but he is admittedly not a marketing, branding or communications expert. In many ways, ex-SCORE President Sal Fish was the same way. But in the new Mint 400 hierarchy two areas of expertise – in this case BITD and Mad Media – are working in results-producing harmony. There is a mutual respect from each group and also a rather unique stance on what would be good for the industry as a whole – and not just what’s good for the Mint 400. That sense of “bigger picture thinking” even extended to Friday’s huge Mint 400 Tech and Contingency day as NORRA (not a rival group but another off-road promotional entity nonetheless) was asked to assemble a very popular display of vintage machinery.
To top things off, the hard-working crew at Mad Media recently aired an incredibly well assembled two-hour documentary on the 2013 race that aired twice on the SPEED network. That alone would have been a major victory for the desert fraternity, but more importantly was the ability of the Martelli brothers and their crew to assemble a wonderful piece of filmmaking that included some great backstories and the challenges of the race from many levels and classes.
Creating great storytelling for a mass audience isn’t easy. Thanks to the support of General Tire and Polaris, the Martellis were able to put their considerable talent into a long form masterpiece. Our entire sport, not just desert racing, is much better for it. Bravo.
WHAT TO WATCH OVER THE NEXT SIX MONTHS?
While these top three stories have the most long-term impact in my view, it doesn’t mean there aren’t fascinating sub-plots that have yet to be realized. Can Rob MacCachren’s improbable and insane year of racing seven (yes, seven) top-level short-course and desert racing categories in 2013 result in championships and mass media appeal? Is Carl Renezeder reaching yet another level in Lucas Oil Pro-4 racing? Is there still hope for LOORRS and TORC to reach some type of coordinated effort for 2014? Can NORRA successfully host a second Baja rally? Will Robby and Clyde kiss and make up?
Stay tuned for another great chapter in “How (the Off-Road) World Turns.” It should be a very interesting six months…