You know him from his mug shot on blogger dart boards everywhere ...
Now national racing for-real journalist and fellow Iowan Jeff Olson goes on record with pithy answers to burning questions.
pressdog: Only a couple of questions on The Column (I swear), wherein you had a bit of a grand mal over cheering in the press box at St. Pete. First, what's been the reaction to it? And have you sobered up or found your medication since then?
Jeff: When I finished it, I felt fantastic. It was cathartic. And then the e-mails and calls started, and I began to think I’d stepped on it. I took a stab at sarcasm and fell a bit flat. Never thought people would seriously believe that I thought all sportswriters suck, but they did. I heard from many, many indignant sports journalists. But honestly, there is an element of schlock in this business. Nothing wrong with pointing that out, but I should have made it clear that I included myself among the schlock. At the very least, it made people talk.
pressdog: Anything you regret? Stand behind? Do you see the IndyCar series and tracks policing the credentials a little more tightly?
Jeff: I stand behind the idea that a majority of people in the press room at IRL events should not be there. They aren’t a) receiving a check for what they’re doing, or b) they aren’t producing anything. They’re impersonating journalists. There are about six of us on the print side that cover it nationally, and then there are the legitimate local sportswriters at each race. But the rest of the room is a curious mix of wankers and hangers-on who shouldn’t be in a press room at a professional sporting event. This would never fly in the NFL or NBA, and it shouldn’t fly here.
pressdog: In Racer Mag (The Fast and the Curious, May 2008) you said "Patrick's first win will come when least expected, but it will happen." With Motegi in the rear view mirror, how do you feel about your prediction?
Jeff: I had a bet going with one of my editors. He said Ed Carpenter would pull off the shocking win in Japan, and I said Danica would. He owes me a day off. As if …
pressdog: How big is, (if it exists at all) the danger that the Danica Mania after the win will get so nutty that other drivers will get pissy?
Jeff: It bothers them on occasion, but I think they all realize that her attention is also their attention. In general they don’t resent her. They know if she wasn’t female she wouldn’t be getting any attention, but at the same time they respect her ability. They just understand (and mostly accept) the notion that her gender has given her certain advantages. There are only a few drivers who truly despise her. The rest accept her. Some even like her. She’s not the witch people have made her out to be. I’ve always found her to be pleasant and cooperative. Behind the scenes, she’s a nice person. She’s also extremely competitive, and she knows exactly what she’s doing. I have a feeling she would be successful in any chosen field. She just happened to choose to drive a race car.
pressdog: In the same Racer article, you said the merger puts pressure on the little guys like DRR, Foyt, Coyne and Menardi. Do you see some of those teams getting culled out simply due to economics?
Jeff: It’s bound to happen. The first wave of CART teams that crossed over in 2003 eventually pushed out the lower tier. Unification is likely to injure the smallest operators within a few years. Whether those teams are able to hang on is crucial to the overall success of the series. I doubt that TG is going to let those teams die or just become one-off entries at Indy, but sponsorship money for backmarkers is going to be tight.
pressdog: Who's most likely to be the first non-Big Three driver or team to win on an oval and why?
Jeff: First and foremost I'd throw Rahal Letterman and Panther out there. Both Vitor Meira and Ryan Hunter-Reay are quite capable of winning on an oval at any time. But if we narrow it down to former Champ Car teams, KV seems to have a slight jump on the others at ovals. It’s likely to be between KV or Newman/Haas/Lanigan for the first oval win by a transitional team, but Conquest and is improving quickly. It will surprise everyone how quickly they get up to speed on ovals. It didn’t take Penske, Ganassi or AGR long to assume control after they joined the IRL, so I don’t see the current group wasting much time.
Keep an eye on Jaime Camara, who just replaced Franck Perera at Conquest. Camara was solid on ovals in the Indy Pro Series, so he could be one to surprise. Vitor is the sentimental favorite of the non-Big Three, but I'd say RHR is the one showing the most speed right now.
pressdog: What's your honest assessment -- is the unified open-wheel registering much more with the random sports fan? What percentage increase general awareness would you estimate it, even post Danica win? (i.e. -- Open-wheel probably gained about 20% in awareness when the merger happened and Danica won.)
Jeff: Danica’s win registered biggest among people who don’t know a thing about racing and aren’t likely to become regular fans, but it also registered among general sports fans, who are more likely to start tuning in to races than the general public. The key is to present a post-Motegi, post-unification product that’s fresh and easy to understand. I’d say it’s somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, but the key is bringing those people back for the next race. If they’re bored or don’t get it, they won’t come back.
pressdog: What's the favorite part of your job? Least favorite?
Jeff: A guy at a rental car agency once told me that most guys would kill me for my job. Aside from being moderately frightening, he was right. The best part about this work is that it’s interesting. No single day is the same. It’s always an adventure. The worst part is the travel, the airline/rental car/hotel thing, but even that can be fun if you make it fun.
pressdog: You've seen the racing underbelly, I'm sure. What's it like? Political infighting, high-school level inter-driver drama? Just another corporate workplace only in fire suits? Give us a flavah of what's behind the curtain.
Jeff: It’s actually not as dramatic as people might think. The drivers are, by and large, decent people, as are most of the owners and team officials. Most of them are just regular people who happen to have interesting occupations. I’ve witnessed a few diva moments and a few boardroom fights, but usually it’s far more dull than that. It’s a few dozen businesses competing against each other in a sporting event. It’s highly competitive, but it’s also highly organized. The act of racing is dramatic, but the rest of the business is calm and normal. Cell phones and meetings and such. It’s not always wheel-to-wheel, teeth-gnashing insanity. It’s a group of businesses attempting to make a profit. The underbelly of that can be quite dull.
pressdog: Young Rahal -- can he better than Bobby?
Jeff: There’s potential to be better, mostly because he had a much earlier start than his dad. He definitely has the gift of road racing, and he’ll adapt to ovals quickly. He has what other drivers consider championship chops -- the potential for an all-around, consistent game -- similar to Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon. If he gets as good at oval racing as those two, he’ll be a championship contender for years to come. That could put him in position to top what his father accomplished.
Jeff: No. Dale Blaney, Dave’s bother, was something like 8’ 10”. He was so tall that his helmet scraped the wing of his WoO car. OK, I’m making that up. But Dale Blaney was freakishly tall. He was drafted by the Lakers, that’s how tall he was. Wilson is about 6-4, which is almost tall enough to block the intake.
pressdog: What's the real reaction to the new drivers being so strong on the streets/roads among veteran IndyCar drivers? Are they a little tense to have the influx of new competition on their hands? Excited by it? Motivated?
Jeff: I’d say they are motivated by it and knew it was coming. All of the top competitors in the IRL were in CART just a few years ago, so they knew all of the players who came over. It’s not like they were surprised that Rahal and Newman/Haas were fast at St. Pete; they would have been surprised if they hadn‘t been fast. They see it as motivation. Instead of just eight guys who were competitive, now they have at least 16.
pressdog: Top five issues you think the league has to address to continue to grow:
Jeff: Marketing, the TV broadcast, accessibility to fans, the next chassis/engine generation, and venues. Get it out there, make it big and bright, make it cheap and easy for the customer, and entice them to return. More street and road races, please. Each one is unique. The ovals all look the same. Plus street and road races draw monster crowds and offer so much more for the fans.
pressdog: You come back to Iowa for the Corn Star 250 race here. What are a few must-dos when you come back to Iowa/Des Moines?
Jeff: Must see mom and family. Must go to George the Chili King. Must drive by the old neighborhood and feel old. Must see old drinking buddies. Must go to Prairie Meadows. Must go to Knoxville. Must marvel at how clean and safe my hometown is compared with the rest of the world (and how friendly and educated the people are). We aren’t pretty or thin, but we’re smart and we have manners. I can’t say that about Miami.
pressdog: If you put a bunch of dirt track drivers in Indy Cars, how many laps before we have a brawl in the pits?
Jeff: Depends. Is (four-time Knoxville Nationals champion Danny "The Dude") Lasoski there? (pressdog note: if so, violence could actually break out during the flyover.)
pressdog: Finally, is pressdog, in fact, your favorite blog and one that should be exempt from any and all cheering in the press room bans?
Jeff: Yes, pressdog is my fave, but I’m also fond of My Name is IRL, and the Free Salt Walther MySpace page is hysterically funny. Anyone who brings humor to the room is exempt from my bitchiness. Laughing is allowed, cheering is not. But if you bring Perez Hilton with you, I might just go on strike.
pressdog: Anything else you want the legions of fans to know? Free shot:
Jeff: I love all of you, and I’m not just kissing up. Race fans are by far the most knowledgeable of all sports fans. I’ve overheard fans at NBA, NFL and MLB games that don’t know the rules, the players, the teams … much of anything. But race fans come prepared. They know the cars, the drivers, the owners. They listen in on scanners. They study their sport, and they’re passionate about it. They’re a tough crowd, and that’s a compliment.