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Of Mice and Men and Real-Time Black Boxes

raffa2.jpg (41832 bytes)Holy Bombast, Batman, it looks as if we've got as much early season action off the track as we do on!

As if the biggest change in rules in eons among the nitro-sniffing crowd weren't enough to start the millennium with a bang - actually less bang, and that seems to be good for almost everybody concerned - one extended off-asphalt skirmish rages from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Delavan, Wisconsin; and another real doozy that involves more plots and subplots than a Dostoyevski novel continues to unfurl itself across the entire Ohio frontier, through Wytheville, Virginia, with recent reports from the Atco, New Jersey- Anaheim, California, coalition tallied, and another missive from Spartanburg added most recently.

First up, it seems that Fred Noer's column in the January 2000 issue of Inside Motorsports (IMS) , as commented on in this column last month, has struck a real nerve in Spartanburg, stompin' grounds of Bobbie Bennett, Jr., the super-active journalist and public relations firm owner there. As it stands right now, Noer, without naming anyone specifically in his column, stated the PR-Journalist connection is a genuine no-no, hinting that favoritism towards one's PR clients is an inevitable result of such alliances. If such were the case, Noer would almost certainly earn points in a classic ethics debate, and considering that ethics and morals get about as much consideration as spoken Latin these days, I thanked Noer for the reminder in last month's column here.

Bennett, Jr., taking Noer's reference personally, sees Noer's logic of PR-Journalist inseparability as specious and antiquated, given the real life rules of the current prevailing philosophy in the workplace: Survival of the Fittest Bottom Line. Bennett is acknowledged by many who know him as one of the hardest working people in his field, often producing huge volumes of articles and releases, on time, often for low pay. And he sincerely believes that what he is doing is ethical: writing race reports for national publications that many times refer to some racers who are also his PR clients, who pay him fees for services that include getting their names into as many places as possible. As we don't know of any successful PR firms that willingly back losers, it would certainly follow that these clients would end up, legitimately, in race reports. The question then becomes one of emphasis.

So where does this battle stand at the moment, after Noer fired round one (the Noer War?) in IMS and Bennett responded with a blitz on his Net cite (Bennett Surfs?), competitionplus.com, February 2000 issue, and Noer, one of our most articulate commentators, fired his own retort to that? It would seem that Noer is correct in ethically questioning the practice of "dual-citizenship" only if Bennett's racing reports are biased toward his clients more than their accomplishments might deserve. Noer must be ready to prove that. Of course, in the press releases Bennett sends under his PR banner (Harley Communications), often to the same publications that print his race reports, he can say pretty much anything he wants, then leave it to the publications' editing departments to cool the material down, if they see fit. That's their job.

If you haven't been following this philosophical brouhaha and are interested in some healthy - and at times very colorfully worded - debate as it applies not only to our drag racing world but seemingly to our contemporary scene as whole, get hold of a copy of the IMS issue and dial up Bennett's web site. By now, these reports are probably archived, but a little digging ought to suffice.

The second matter I previewed above is more convoluted and has been going on for about two years now, though its electronic roots now seem to reach back at least to the '70s, according to reports in Drag Racing USA (DRUSA) magazine, May 2000 issue. Certainly, any bracket racer worth his under -.10 reaction time is well familiar with at least the essence of this story, so I'll be as brief as I can in summarizing. (You can read further accounts in both DRUSA ; and, IMS , February 2000. )

Bill Bader, Jr., (all Bader references made below are to Bill Bader, Jr., and not his father, Bill Bader, owner of International Hot Rod Association, unless otherwise specified), general manager of Norwalk Raceway Park in Norwalk, Ohio, began suspecting in 1998 that some of the racers there were winning a higher percentage of the big-dollar races than seemed statistically feasible, even given the expertise and long experience in the ranks of some of them. In addition to his own observations, Bader was increasingly approached by other racers complaining that they didn't think they were getting a fair shake at the major money meets because, they believed, illegal devices were being used by some of the winners. Further, Bader came across information that led him to believe the supposed unfair edge was being honed through the use of real-time data computers, illegal according to the Norwalk Track Rule Book, given to every racer who participates at Raceway Park, and at most venues in the country. When we sought Bader's comments for this article, he insisted that every step he took in the matter was only to discover if some racers were indeed cheating others, (thus, in fact, stealing from them), and if so, use whatever strategy and tactics necessary to stop the practice and deal with the violators.

After due time observing as best he could from his official's position and seeing he could get no further in track garb, literally and figuratively, Bader decided the next tack would incorporate a bit of a self-styled sting, which he successfully instituted, eventually gaining the confidence of some of the suspected rules' breakers.

In November 1999, at the nationally noted Moroso five-day bracket race, one of the racers on Bader's developing list of suspects was protested after winning runner-up money on Friday. The driver of the protested car, who later said he was in fear of his life from the unruly crowd that gathered around him after the protest was lodged, refused teardown, left the money in the pot, and exited the track.

Shortly thereafter, three of the other suspects on Bader's list, citing overwrought consciences, confessed to Bader that they had been using the devices, even bringing one with them, and also named eight other drivers they said had employed the devices. Armed with that information plus the other facts he had gathered, some of which he will not reveal in consideration of protecting sources, Bader then felt that he had sufficient evidence of the use of illegal devices use by 12 Ohio-based drivers, and he banned the entire dozen from participating at Norwalk for life, his right as track manager as spelled out in the rules' book.

Duly, the details of the entire Norwalk-Moroso-Bracketdom story were spelled out in Wytheville's IMS and New Jersey/Anaheim's DRUSA.

DRUSA's reports and sidebars on the matter, by Steve Collison and Dale Wilson seem straightforward on the facts of the matter and very informative on the technical aspects, including an interview with one of the racers in question, Rich Matty Jr., and a background on and explanation of how the real-time devices work.

On the other hand, two out of the three IMS articles appear biased from the get-go. Associate publisher Scott Sparrow's account seems to call for a constitutional review of Bader's actions, at the very least, and an unsigned Commentary column became so jingoistic that I was almost ashamed to be seated while reading as the writer beat me over the head with a John Phillips Sousa rendition, at full song, of the Star Spangled Banner. I am the more surprised by the hyperbole because, normally, IMS's troops stick a lot closer to the facts. Comparatively, Brett Kepner's related Moroso eyewitness report stood out in its tact and cogency. And for sheer entertainment value and comic relief , if exactitude is not your first priority, you might try perusing Kevin Ruic's column at Competition Plus. It reads much as if it were created with the exuberance of a child handed an Etch-a-sketch for the first time, with an equivalent logic employed. Ruic can be a very entertaining guy and has many talents, but here, his objectivity seems to have fallen apart.

Though I've never been a bracket racer, nor am I currently hip to many of its idiosyncrasies, after reading DRUSA's and IMS's reports and listening to the general buzz on the subject, I think I'm fairly capable of understanding what went on here, and given the real estate devoted to the stories by these two publications, I decided to call Bader and ask his response, if any.

I told him what I had learned, then asked how he came to the decision to handle the matter as he did, criticized by some as overly secretive and materially unsubstantiated. “I felt this was truly the best way to handle a really tough situation and that my method would cause the least disruption in the other (clean) racers' and Norwalk's racing endeavors.

“I've been accused by a lot of people of acting irrationally and without just cause without sufficient proof but why would I ban a bunch of racers just on a whim? That just doesn't make any sense. It would be really foolish on my part, because these are the people (legitimate racers) who contribute to the most important reasons for running this place: trying to build and maintain the best track in the country for bracket racers and, at the same time, make a profit.

“I just felt that the least disruptive way was the best way here. And if I was wrong, why haven't I heard from any of the 12, with one exception? The only guy I got a call from asked me if IHRA was also banning him for life. I told him what IHRA had decided and told him to call them for confirmation. That's it. Not one of the others has had any communication with me or other NRP employees. I can't say much more about it because I've been legally advised not to. But besides protecting some of my sources, I'm not trying to hide anything. There's nothing to hide.

“On the technical end, when I began to believe that some of the racers' comments were more than just losers' sour grapes, one of the analytical tactics employed was to read 60-foot data for differentials in ET and MPH times, and plot their variances. I found that nearly constant ETs on some of the cars being questioned were coupled to speeds that varied as much as six or seven miles per hour; that seemed very unusual, a pattern of speeding up and slowing down that early in a run, and hinted at, perhaps, a controlling device of some kind.

“A little later, at our July Grand Nationals bracket event last year, one of the racers in question was torn down and checked thoroughly. We didn't find the real-time device we were looking for, but the car was one that was so neatly put together that when we found a couple of wires not in line with others - they really stood out because the harness was very carefully installed - it became just a little suspicious. We didn't mention it to the racer, nor did we mention the next oddity we found: In our inspection we really took the car apart, three hours worth, and looked for everything, and when we looked at the right front wheel bearing, it had absolutely zero grease on it. All three other wheel bearings did. And since the device we were looking for was rumored to have its sender located in the right front axle, we surmised that the wheel bearing had been replaced very recently. Subsequently, we found that when the communication went from the tower to the official notified to send the car to the teardown area, it was intercepted by members of the 12. In fact, they were tapped into all six of our track's channels.

“But the story we released concerning the teardown chastised the protesters for sending us on a wild goose chase and reported that the car in question had been found totally legal. That tactic relaxed some of the other racers on our list, and I was able to gain their confidence and more information. They were the guys who eventually came forward to involve themselves and the rest of the dozen and give full details on the real-time data computer. I now have one of the devices in my possession and the application book that came with it. This is not a group that just suddenly appeared out of the blue. Collectively, they've been racing for a long time and have a world of experience; they're all die-hard racers who live and breathe racing, and up till the time they were caught would seemingly do anything they could to win.

“A big part in the current situation isn't hard to figure; it's the giant, out-of-control big purse bracket races. But I already see a lessening of them. Many of the guys who a couple of years ago figured they had as good a chance to win the big purse as the next guy are having second thoughts about it now. Giant purses are extracted from giant entry fees, and a lot of these guys who saw a million bucks within their grasp are starting to realize what a huge expense the entries are and to see the million dollar pots for what they really are - certainly not a million bucks to any one racer, and a whole lot less depending on how numbers are manipulated - and a lot further from their grasp than they thought. I don't expect them to go away overnight, but I think you'll see fewer of them as more racers get wiser. I guess that's really another subject all to itself, but I do see how it can make some guy who might not otherwise think about it consider using an illegal device.”

Anything else?

“Yes. I know the media have their jobs to do, and as a track operator, especially in a controversial circumstance like this, I have to expect a certain amount of scrutiny and questioning. Steve Collison from DRUSA called and talked to me about the whole deal, and I thought his magazine did a very good job of handling it reportorially and technically. Later, Scott Sparrow from IMS called and questioned me about the incident. Then, when I read what was written in their Commentary column, I just shook my head. I just couldn't believe that his paper would call into question the value of the entire 30 years that my family has been in the drag racing business. He said that even though we'd made Norwalk one of the best tracks for fans in the country and that my father had done great things with IHRA, all that was now threatened by an action I took, in good faith with positive proof, to stop a bunch of thieves from stealing from other racers. I start to see why a lot of public figures avoid the press if they can, but I know all of them (newspapers and magazines) aren't like that, and the next time I talk to a reporter, I hope he or she is a little brighter.”

I thanked him for his time and told him I hoped I was

If you've got a personal input on either of the subjects above, please feel free to drop 'em on your e-mail icon (address below).

Thanks for hangin’! raffasig.gif (2878 bytes)

John Raffa is currently freelancing in Huron, Ohio,
and invites comments at: DCDragons@aol.com

 

photo by Karen Raffa

 

 

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